A few weeks ago, a wolf in sheep’s clothing prowled the White House lawn. The Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Washington, D.C. to sign a boring trade agreement with President Barack Obama. The details of the deal aren’t important—they’re so staid and sensible that I’ll leave it to the reader with a masochistic bent, or severe insomnia, to Google them. A quick glance at their mildly laudable contents will probably reinforce the American predilection to view Canada as a sleepy enclave of bureaucratic good government and tepidly left-wing policies. Canada is the place American liberals are always threatening to move to when Republicans become president, right?
But in six years under Harper, Canada has been moving steadily to the right on issues like diplomacy, abortion, and—crucially, to Americans—oil and the environment. Running on that platform, the Conservatives were handed their first majority government of the Harper era in elections this May. Canada is no longer your cheerful, liberal neighbor of yore.
It all starts with Harper, a churchgoing evangelical, who has perhaps the most doggedly right-wing temperament of any twentieth-century Canadian prime minister. A veteran of the conservative movement, Harper has been president of a prominent Canadian libertarian lobbying group and helped get the insurgent, Western Canada-based Reform Party off the ground in the late eighties by arguing for the deregulation of oil prices and lowered taxes, and against gay marriage and abortion. He’s an admirer of Friedrich Hayek and William F. Buckley. And he has devoted his life to pushing Canadian politics to the right.
Take war resisters. For some American baby boomers, Canada’s liberalism is still tied to its role as a haven for Vietnam-era draft dodgers. And, indeed, to this day Toronto and Vancouver are full of aging, Birkenstock-clad conscientious objectors who came here in the late sixties and early seventies, when the laid-back, anti-war Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau was still letting them in. When Iraq began, another Liberal government opposed the war, and deserters began trickling across the Canadian border again. But Harper, then leading the opposition Canadian Alliance party (later to become the Conservative Party of Canada), supported the war, and when his Conservatives came to power they began deporting Iraq war deserters with glee. In September 2010, the Conservatives led the charge in defeating a bill that would have stopped the deportations on humanitarian grounds.
On the environment, Harper is stridently conservative, moving Canada away from its traditional green stance with a tireless defense of the Canadian oil industry and efforts to squirm out of international climate deals. Recently, the Conservatives pulled out of the Kyoto Accord, which mandated Canada to reduce its emissions by a modest 6 percent below 1990 levels. This didn’t come as much of a surprise: Harper’s home base is in Alberta oil country, home of the tar sands, a sprawling patch of land in eastern Alberta where they extract a thick, sludgy, bitumen-based crude—a process that creates unusually large amounts of carbon emissions.
Harper has been relentlessly pro-tar sands—his ambassador to the U.S. is lobbying hard to get approval for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would move 700,000 barrels a day from the tar sands to Gulf refineries in Texas, adding to the roughly 2 million barrels Canada already sends south every day. (Indeed, Canada has become America’s biggest oil supplier.) Recently, Obama postponed the pipeline decision until after the 2012 elections, responding to concerns over the effect of potential spills on a Nebraska water reservoir and the pipeline’s abetment of America’s oil addiction.
Harper has been right-wing on the global stage as well. In April 2010, his government announced that its contribution to the G8’s maternal health initiative would not include funding for abortions, putting it at odds with the Obama administration. The decision reversed a long-standing practice of funding abortion out of the foreign aid budget, and was particularly striking given that there are no legal restrictions on abortion in Canada. Harper also carved out a stance to the right of Obama on Israel when he objected to any mention of Israel’s pre-1967 borders in a G8 leaders’ communiqué in May. This prompted a grateful personal phone call from Avidgor Lieberman, Israel’s ultra-right-wing foreign minister.
The list continues: Harper has lowered corporate taxes, scrapped Canada’s long-gun registry to sew up the rural vote, and fought for more prisons and tougher sentences despite rapidly falling crime rates.
A final sign of Harper’s proclivities? While Obama has been telling his ambassadors to promote gay rights, Canada has been enjoining its envoys to hang up gilt-framed paintings of the British queen—instructions that have been widely regarded as a sop to a Conservative base with a crush on the monarchy. (The Queen is Canada’s “head of state.”) Just a month earlier, the government added the word “Royal” to Canada’s air force and navy.
So why have Canadians, traditionally proponents of statism and free love, elected a leader who seems plucked from the day-dreams of a fevered conservative activist? To get at the answer, I asked John Ibbitson, a columnist at the national newspaper The Globe and Mail.
For one thing, he says, Canada still hasn’t really gotten over an unnerving close call with fiscal crisis in the mid-1990s, when investors didn’t want to buy the bonds Canada was selling to fund its deficit. This left the country “permanently fiscally conservative,” says Ibbitson. Indeed, it was a Liberal government that began shrinking the state and started a corporate tax-cut spree at the beginning of last decade.
And Conservatives have scored big with new immigrants, especially South and East Asians in the suburbs around Toronto. “The new waves of immigrants are more fiscally and socially conservative than the old wave,” Ibbitson points out. “Immigrants today from India and China and the Philippines are probably trying to get away from the corporatist elements in the society, and also have a strong emphasis on the family.”
Harper has also recognized, shrewdly, that Canada is not Mississippi, and has been careful not to pursue his conservative inclinations to the hilt on domestic policy. Despite his attempt to restrict the reproductive health of poor women in foreign countries, Harper has shown no interest in fighting for, or even discussing, abortion laws in Canada. Further, most Canadians still believe in a strong social safety net, including universal, government-paid health care. Harper has tread lightly on these issues, too. As Ibbitson told me,“If Stephen Harper ran in the United States, he’d have to run for the Democrats. And he’d have to run in some place like California.”
It’s true that Harper’s concessions to liberal public opinion would make him sweat behind a podium at a Republican primary debate—imagine Mitt Romney’s contorted defense of the individual mandate times a thousand. But the Prime Minister is certainly not a Pelosi-Waxman California Democrat, either. Canada is now more conservative than the U.S. on the environment, Israel, and public funding for abortions in other countries. Looks like American liberals are going to have to find somewhere else to move to if President Gingrich takes the Oval Office next November. I hear Cuba has nice beaches.
Eric Andrew-Gee is a former intern at The New Republic, and a Canadian.